Let’s face it. In the proverbial melting pot that is the United States of America, racism is absolutely inescapable every day of every month of every year. In fact, this week’s hot-button racial controversy involves the release of country superstar Brad Paisley’s new CD featuring a collaborative tune with rapper LL Cool J entitled “Accidental Racist.” Whether race is embraced or sidestepped, it will always be a divisive magnet.
So it’s not surprising the topic inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet (“Glengarry Glen Ross”), the icon of dramas consumed with men behaving badly while speaking profanely. In his 2009 legal character study “Race,” receiving a riveting local premiere at the Human Race Theatre Company sharply directed by Richard E. Hess, he boldly confronts the subject with the deliberate aim of clearing the air. With brash fury, Mamet has come to realize in matters of prejudice avoidance leads to nowhere.
The prickly, extremely heated office debate between two cynical lawyers – one white, the other black – defending a wealthy white businessman accused of raping a young black woman tackles stereotypes and deep-seated acuities with stinging perceptiveness. You may not agree with the assessments deliberated and you may even be outright offended in the process, but Mamet daringly provokes thought nonetheless in his familiarly distinct, no holds barred manner. However, it’s not just the core rape dispute that finds Mamet at his investigatory best. He shrewdly expands his juicy, fast-moving script to explore the testy waters of race in employment applications, which allows the intermissionless play to resonate on a more personable level beyond the predictably titillating areas of sex and violence.
Richard B. Watson, who joined the cast last week replacing an ill Michael Kenwood Lippert, is terrifically combative as Jack Lawson, the sardonic, smug hotshot prepared to win at all costs. Watson supplies a remarkable gusto in his showy, off-putting role which he occasionally flavors with comical facial expressions revealing Jack’s disgust as situations twist and turn. He also pushes the dialogue’s nasty nuances to the hilt, particularly Jack’s infuriated response to the testimony of a hotel cleaning lady he assumes is an illegal immigrant. The equally excellent Alan Bomar Jones effectively counters as confidant and instigator in his firmly grounded portrayal of Jack’s partner Henry Brown, Mamet’s fairly accurate gateway into the black point of view. Bruce Cromer supplies one of his most brilliantly understated performances as the meek and mousy Charles Strickland, whose insistence to talk to the press about his questionable actions is met with disdain by Jack and Henry. Thanks to Cromer’s superb embodiment of Charles’ humility and seemingly Jekyll & Hyde guise the play thoroughly maintains its gripping guessing game foundation. As Susan, Jack and Henry’s intriguing black apprentice, the marvelously forthright Julia Pace Mitchell ensures her sassy, mysterious character is tough enough to be considered on equal footing with her bosses yet fierce enough to be believed as a strong black woman unafraid to rock the boat. Mitchell’s briefly animated interplay with Jones during Susan and Henry’s contentious clash toward the conclusion is also striking, especially considering the foreground of Mark Halpin’s fine set resembles an expansive boxing ring.
Challenging, enlightening and uncomfortable, “Race” packs a dynamic punch you’ll never forget.
“Race” continues through April 21 at the Loft Theatre, 126 N. Main St., Dayton. The play, performed in 85 minutes without intermission, is held Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $36-$40. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.humanracetheatre.org. Also, 25 special $25 tickets are available at most performances.